Erskine Childers: Author, Irish Gunrunner, Churchill's Bête Noire

Robert Erskine Childers {Erskine} 25th June 1870 – 24 Nov1922 -  was born in Mayfair London the second son in a family of five children – to Robert Caesar Childers and Anna Mary Henrietta Barton. His father was an oriental scholar and translator who came from a long line of ecclesiastical family traditions. His mother came from an Anglo-Irish landowning family, with business interests in France, such as a winery that bears the Barton family name. They had a large Manor House called Annamoe  House in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. They were friends with the Parnell’s, who moved in the Irish aristocracy circles and who also lived in Co. Wicklow [Charles Stewart was leader of the Irish Nationalist movements 1881]

His grandfather Canon Charles Childers saw great potential in the young Childers, and it was on his recommendations that the young Childers was sent to Hailseybury College, a boarding School in Hertfordshire where he studied sport [he had a huge interest in rugby] and followed an academic curriculum, becoming an all-round student of academia and sport. However an injury sustained while hill walking before he went to University left him with a slight limp and sciatic pain which dogged him for life, thereby,  scuppering any hopes of him ever having a Rugby Career; he did however become a proficient rower.

He was a very committed, intellectual and studious student, so it was no surprise that he won a scholarship to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied the classical tripos [multidisciplinary selection of subjects].. Despite the fact that his peers were of the opinion that he had poor debating skills and an unattractive voice, he went on to distinguish himself as editor of the Cambridge Review University magazine and became president of the Trinity College Debating Society [known as ‘ the Magpie and Stump ‘ society].

When he received his degree in Law, he had vague notions of following his cousin Hugh Childers into parliament as an MP, so he sat the very competitive entry exams required so that he could become a parliamentary clerk. Having achieved his goal of passing the exams with honors, he became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons 1895, preparing legal and formal bills for proposals for the Government of the day. By 1900 he had volunteered to fight in the Boar War in Africa, and served as an artillery driver for approximately one year, before returning to England  to take up his civil service post again.

On his return he wrote a book about his Boar War memories ‘In the Ranks of the CIV' and followed this up with ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ in 1903. This book on its own, was a huge success and dramatically elevated him from the lowly ranks of civil servant to the higher echelons of being the author of a successful book that was the first example of a twentieth century spy thriller, written in the context of German threats to Britain, with a heavy dose of factual detail, based on his own experiences of sailing and his influences of being trained in Victorian English value’s.

In late 1903, Childers was in Boston on a ceremonial trip with Lord Denbigh of the Honourable Artillery Company, where they were invited to a dinner party hosted by the sister of Dr Hamilton Osgood.. Dr Hamilton Osgood and Margaret Cushing Osgood were a very prominent family in Boston, and were direct descendants of John Quincy Adams.  Adams was of course none other than one of the founding fathers, and the first Vice president of the USA [1789-97] and the second President of the USA [1797-1801]; his son, John Quincy Adams was the USA sixth President and the they were all lifelong members of The United First Parish Church of Quincy, Massachusetts.

At this dinner party, Childers was seated next to Molly Osgood, who was an attractive, intellectually gifted young woman, and they hit it off straight away. Molly had been in a skating accident when she had been three years of age, which had left her disabled and unable to walk until she was twelve years of age; she was unable to mobilize without the aid of walking sticks ever after. Childers himself having had an accident which had left him with a permanent limp, understood and sympathized with her regarding her disability. They were both highly intellectual people and very much interested in horses and politics. So after a very short and intense courtship, by January 1904  they were married at Trinity Church, Boston, at which was described as the “most distinguished gathering" of the season.   

Childers returned to London with his new wife [left] and resumed his position in the House of Commons. By this time he had been promoted to the position of parliamentary clerk. His reputation as an influential author, gave the couple access to the political establishment, which Molly relished, but at the same time she set to work to rid Childers of his already faltering Imperialism, as he had become uncertain of where he stood in the best interests of Ireland.. some sources would suggest that Molly was a firm believer in Imperialism on her arrival in England [this suggestion was quashed, however, many years later by Nessa Childers, grand-daughter, citing Molly’s continued support and commitment to Ireland's cause even after Erskine Childers death, calling it “circumstantial evidence”].. His salary combined with his continued writings, plus the generous allowance from Molly’s father, Dr Hamilton Osgood, allowed them to live a very comfortable lifestyle in their rented flat in Chelsea. 

They had three sons, Erskine Hamilton, Dec. 1905, [who became the fourth President of Ireland from 1973 until his death in 1974; he had served in a number of differing roles prior to him being elected as Irish President.]  Henry 1906 [died the following year] and Robert Alden 1910. Throughout their marriage they wrote frequently to one another, showing them as a contented couple, happy with their family. The Osgood’s were frequent visitors. Molly took up sailing to please Childers and developed a lifelong passion for sailing; she became a highly skilled sailor and afterwards, her father had a very expensive, belated wedding gift, the Asgard, built and fitted out to suit both of Molly’s and Childers needs..

 By this time Childers had written works critical of British Policy, and the continued colonization by the British Empire, of Ireland and South Africa, and not least the concessions that had been granted to Unionists in Northern Ireland. Uncertain now, of his place in British Politics, it was against this backdrop of his unease with Ireland's struggle for an Independent Ireland, that he resigned his membership of the Liberal Party. All hopes of him winning a parliamentary seat were now dashed.

Childers always retained a strong bond with his cousins, so in 1908 it was no surprise when they went on a tour of Southern Ireland with Horace Plunkett {Irish Senator] ..to ascertain for themselves how Irish people were living and existing in this colonized Irish country which just so happened to be their country as well. Their shared experiences of seeing the Irish people living in hovels, mud huts etc. and total deprivation convinced them that colonialism was fundamentally wrong. It was round about this time that Childers and his cousin Robert Barton embraced the existence of the Irish movements in seeking an Independent Ireland, so much so that by 1913 they had also joined the Irish Volunteers.

So when Childers learned that Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer’s had successfully landed a shipment of 35,000 German Rifles at Larne, Co. Down in early 1914, he was incandescent with fury and rage. Especially since he knew that the Ulster Volunteers were totally opposed to Home Rule for Ireland, and the British authorities seemingly watched as this whole episode of gun-running to Ulster was unfurling right in front of their face and had done nothing to intervene. 

Appalled by this outrage and sudden imbalance of armory strength in Ulster, Childers and his wife Molly joined a committee of well-to-do Republican sympathizers, to look at ways in which the Irish Volunteers could be armed in the same way. A group of like-minded wealthy republicans with the flair and know-how of organizing a massive undertaking of the size and volume of armory and rifles that would be required to arm the Irish Volunteers, met at the London home of the County Meath Irish born historian Alice Stoppard Green. A large group met, who included Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, Darrell Figgas, Eoin MacNeill [all members of The Irish Volunteers], Sir Roger Casement, Sir Alec Laurence, Lord Ashbourne, Lady Young and GF Berkeley,  not least Childers and his wife Molly. Also Patrick Pearse, who is reputed to have remarked at this meeting, ‘‘the only thing more ridiculous than an Ulsterman with a rifle, is a Nationalist without one”. Initial funding for the purchase of the armoury came from Alice Stoppard Green, which was given to Casement as a loan of approx. £1,500- £2000 with more funds being raised by the initial group.

At this meeting a decision was made that Casement, Figgis and Childers would meet the London Agent of a Belgium arms dealer, eventually closing a deal with a dealer in Hamburg. Some sources would suggest there were 1,500 rifles, other sources suggest it was 2,000 rifles. Transportation was an issue so the Childers immediately offered their yacht the Asgard as a means of transport with Conor O’Brien offering his smaller Yacht ‘ the Kelpi ‘. While the British authorities fully anticipated such an arms cargo of illicit armory, what they had not banked on was Childers ability to spin a web of deceit, right at the heart of British Intelligence. Childrers had falsified the report, and convinced the British that a cargo of arms was en-route for Ireland, but it would be an Irish fishing trawler that they would be looking for.     

Both Yachts set sail to rendezvous with the Ruytingen buoy near the Belgiun coast, where they were to meet the tugboat that had the rifles and gunpowder. On board were the Childers, Mary Spring Rice, and two Irish sailors, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan. When they reached their destination, they transferred all the rifles and gunpowder/bullets to both Yachts, filling them both to capacity, leaving no room for sleeping or cooking.

With such a heavy a cargo, the navigators and the sailors were very cautious at sailing the Yachts very fast, so they took extra precautions, only sailing at knot’s that would not tempt any failures. So when they ran into a heavy storm with the heavy cargo of illicit armoury, that, on its own was a nightmare for the crew on both boats, desperately trying to keep the yacht’s steady and on course. Nothing, however, was comparable to the next situation that they ran into as they then encountered an entire fleet of the British Navy Ships out in anticipation of the outbreak of the coming war, and had to sail through with their illicit cargo. The illicit cargo from the Kelpi, having been transferred onto a larger yacht called the Chotah, off the Welsh Coast, for a safer passage across the turbulent Irish sea, had been able to make up sufficient ground, to act as a decoy for the Asgard, sailing first into the fleet of Naval Ship’s. It would now appear Childers falsified documents had had its desired effect as both Yachts sailed right through the British Fleet of Naval Ships.

The Asgard 

The Asgard arrived in Howth on the 24th April,1914, at approx 12.00 noon, where they were met with jubilation by the massive crowd of Fianna Eireann, Cumann na mBan and Irish Volunteers [high ranking Irish Republican Brotherhood members, far too many to name individually]  who spanned the whole of Howth Harbour. The illicit cargo was unloaded quickly, and very efficiently with hand carts and wheelbarrows which were then all secreted away into differing areas of Dublin, and not least, in the Christian Brothers grounds nor far away from Howth Harbour. Unsurprisingly, the Harbour Master informed the authorities, and subsequently, both the Metropolitan Police and the Assistant Commissioner Harrell also appealed for military assistance, and a detachment of the Kings Own Scottish Boarderers were dispatched to Howth Harbour, to arrest and detain all suspects and the illicit cargo.

Riots followed, shots were fired, with many Policemen refusing to follow orders and disarm the Irish Volunteers. On the way back to Dublin three people were killed in Bachelor’s Walk by the British Soldiers and only twenty rifles were seized. So while all of this was happenin, the Asgard with the Childers and Spring-Rice on board set sail out into the Irish sea to avoid being caught. The Chotah sailed on down the coast to Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow where it was met by Sir Thomas Myles, Tom Kettle and James Meredith. Interestingly, all of these men who were in the upper echelons of “knowledge and power within the Irish Brotherhood“ were Protestants and professional’s in one capacity or another, right at the heart of the British Government. 

In the meantime, Childers continued to write “works critical of British Policy in Ireland and in South Africa“ so, it came as no surprise that it was Winston Churchill that had been instrumental in Childers re-call to naval service. His re-call documents were sent the Dublin Headquarters of the Irish Volunteers, the very same address of the group that he’d, had the illicit cargo of arms delivered too. This on its own would suggest that the British Authorities knew exactly where Childers could be found and more importantly, they were letting him know, that they knew exactly where to find him. However, it was in their own interests to have Childers working for them, rather than against them, a friend rather than a foe. When he was re-called back to naval intelligence, this gave his critics all the ammunition they needed to brand him as a spy and a traitor.

- Winston Churchill 

Knowing his ability to create plots as he had done in the Riddle of the Sands, Churchill had his naval Commander issue Childers with orders to draw up plan’s for the invasion of Germany by way of the Fresian Islands. In effect Churchill had Childers doing a neat reversal of his plot in The Riddle of the Sands. Some days later he was allocated to HMS Engadine [a seaplane carrier] as an instructor in coastal navigation. His duties were then extended to include flying as a navigator and observer in the Cuxhaven Raid [Nordhoiz in Lower Saxony] and inconclusive attack on the Cuxhaven airship base on Christmas day 1914; for this he was mentioned in dispatches. He was then transferred to a similar role on the HMS "Ben-my-Chree" 1915, where he served in the Gallipoli Campaign and the eastern Mediterranean; this earned him a Distinguished Service Cross. He was then sent back to London in April 1916 to receive his decoration from King George V for service to the Admiralty. This period of his life is relatively undocumented, however he is on record as being frustrated and angry over the proposal of the 1918 Conscription Act to include Irish men, calling it ‘insane and criminal“ – he carried on doing mundane tasks of allocating seaplanes to their respective ships. He did however mange to extradite himself from naval intelligence, and trained for a new role with the new coastal motor-boat squadron, operating in the English Channel.

Knowing how intelligent / highly skilled and persuasive Childers was [bordering on obsessive stubbornness, not giving in until he had achieved his goal] Sir Horace Plunket [Irish Senator / friend], made a request for him to be assigned to the Secretariat of then Prime Minister Llyod George’s Home Rule Convention initiative that would be taking place in Dublin Castle 1918. This initiative failed however, and on his return to London, he found that as a navel flyer, he had been transferred into the newly created Royal Air Force. As no specified role was available for him, it was with Hugh Trenchard, who had formed his Independent Bomber Command that Childers found himself attached too, as a group intelligence officer to prepare navigational briefs for attacks on Berlin. These raids however, were forestalled by the Armistice and Childers last assignment was to provide an intelligence assessment of the effects of bombing raids in Belgium.

By this time, some source’s would suggest that his involvement in all aspects of World War I, his intense and highly motivated involvement in Ireland's goal of achieving an Independent Ireland and his writings which were highly critical of British Policy in Ireland, had left him a physical and mental wreck. So much so that by March 1919, he succumbed to a severe attack of influenza which completely knocked him off his feet and he was ordered by his doctor to rest and recoup in the countryside. The most obvious place for him was in Annamoe House, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow with his cousin Robert Barton.

- Annamoe House, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow 

It was while he was recouping in Glendalough that he found out that Robert Barton ‘had thrown in his lot’, with Sinn Féin.  Annamoe House was a well-known venue for all of the Sinn Fein high ranking officers of the Irish Military Brotherhood, who were weekend guests, to discuss military tactics and other important issues - so it was during his recuperation that he first met the underground military leader Michael Collins, who then introduced him to Éamonn De Valera, the President of Sinn Féin. Childers found himself highly motivated, and with much enthusiasm for the more aggressive form of force that was underpinning Collins approach to Ireland's Independence, rather than his own "moderate Dominion of Irish Republic by negotiation” perspective.

 Robert Barton [Cousin of Childers]

At the end of his convalescence in Annamoe House, he returned to Molly and the Children in Chelsea, London, telling Molly he was expecting a call from Sinn Féin. That call came about a month later, and anticipating an offer of a major role within the Irish Military Brotherhood, he hurried to Dublin, much to Molly’s dismay, leaving her alone again with the children. 

It is uncertain when his transformation from English Officer to Sinn Féin Chief Propagandist took place. It was however, a very different Erskine Childers, always a highly motivated person, determined but kind and caring, that had now taken on a tendency towards obsession, intolerant of other people’s opinions plus a sheer pig-headedness that would prevent him from changing course. Worst of all, he appeared to have an addiction to danger, that for Molly, was very upsetting and worrying. [After his death she was to say, ‘it was like he had a death wish’]    


Apart from Collins however, who welcomed him with open arms, he found the rest of the Nationalist wary and even hostile toward him. It was Arthur Griffith in particular, who called him a renegade and even a spy. When he was offered the task of joining the unofficial Irish Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, he went reluctantly, although he felt he was being tested to prove his worthiness, in attempting to advance the cause of Irish self-rule. This project also failed to advance the Irish cause for Independence, so Childers went back to London despondent and frustrated, not knowing how he would be able to convince all of the Irish Military Brotherhood that he was on their side. After a spell of contemplation, Childers was anxious to be at the center of events in the Irish Military Brotherhood, so he rented a house in Dublin, much to Molly’s dismay, given the above change that she had witnessed in his personality.  

Molly cited the children’s education, and the fact that if they stayed in London, they could best serve the Irish cause better, by influencing opinion amongst their many high profile friends there. Eventually after many difficult discussions, Molly succumbed to Childers wishes to move the family to Dublin at the end of 1919, but not before Molly had researched and secured a place for the children in the best schools.

Following Childers move to Dublin he was appointed as the Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament [after D. Fitzgerald was arrested and imprisoned]. By 1920, he had published a book called 'Military Rule in Ireland', strongly attacking British Rule in Ireland. He then stood as a Sinn Fein candidate for the Kildare / Wicklow constituency, where he was elected unopposed. At this time he had published the pamphlet, “Is Ireland a Danger to England” which directly attacked the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, which did not endear him to the British Authorities.

 Lloyd George British Prime Minister 1916-1922  

As the guerrilla war raged around Dublin and rural Ireland, and with his Irish propaganda materials now being printed in newspapers, Childers felt that he had established himself with the higher echelons of Sinn Féin. So much so that when De Valera returned from Westminster with the Proposals for Treaty discussions to take place on the 11th October 1921st to 6th December 1921, it was Childers who was duly proposed as the secretary-general of the Irish delegation that would negotiate the terms and conditions. He was vehemently opposed to the final draft of the agreement, and in particular the clause that required the Irish Leaders to take an Oath of Allegiance to a British King.

When the Treaty was approved by votes of 64 to 57, De Valera resigned leading the  Anti Treaty force, and the country once again descended into chaos and civil war - the Anti-Treaty vs The Pro–Treaty… On June the 16th 1922, Childers stood as an anti – Treaty Sinn Fein candidate, but he lost his seat. This set the scene for his complete ostracization by the rest of the anti-Treaty forces who had always called him “that bloody Englishman” and who they had always thought of as being an outsider.

 

When Michael Collins was assassinated on the 22nd of August, this intensified the desire to extract retribution, so by 28th September the Irish Dáil [now called the Free State] introduced the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, and martial law powers for new capital offenses, including the carrying of firearms without a license. By this time Childers had become one of the Free States primary targets for assassination, and not least, by the British Authorities who were after his blood also. Always looking over his shoulder, he took to hiding and only visited Molly and the children when he found it safe enough to do so. Molly begged him to leave the country for his own safety but he refused. As the hunt for Childers intensified, the high command of the Anti-Treaty forces distanced themselves from him as well, because he had become “too infamous to be of any real practical use to them”, and had hid him away in Macroom, Co. Cork, addressing letters for periods of time.

On the 10th November however Childers luck ran out - he was arrested by the New Free State forces at his home in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, while visiting Molly and the children, and on his way to meet De Valera. He was found in possession of a Spanish-made “Destroyer” 32 caliber semi-automatic pistol, [a gift from Michael Collins when the two men had been on the same side, indeed many would say they were friends], and was in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution. He was convicted by a Military Court and sentenced to death on the 20th November.  

Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, Childers shook hands with each of the firing squad. He also obtained a promise from his then 16-year-old son, [the future President of Ireland Erskine Hamilton Childers] to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant. And again, in the spirit of his nature he said to his two son’s “take a step or two forward lads, it will be easier that way “….  the last words he spoke to the world were as follows …  “I have a belief in the beneficent shaping of our destiny and I believe God means this for the best, for us, Ireland, and humanity. I die full of intense love of Ireland”.

 An appeal was launched by his Lawyer’s; however, while his appeal was still pending, he was taken to Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin, and executed on the 24th November 1922. His remains were buried at the Barracks until 1923, when the remains were re–interred at the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.

  •  After Childers death, Molly released a statement which read "His sacrifice is as much a gift to me, as it is to his comrades who serve Ireland's cause"
  • Molly remained committed to the Republican cause for which her husband gave his life, along with this huge commitment to Ireland - she had always been committed to justice and equality. She had received an MBE from King George V for all her charitable work. She was also awarded the Médaikke de la Reine Elisabeth from Queen Elizabeth of Belguim, along with other plaudits from various organizations, including the The White Cross .  
  • Beset by health problems for the remainder of her life, Molly spent approximately 3 years in the private Brookline Hospital, Massachusetts. When this period in hospital ended, she returned to Annamoe House, Glenadlough, Co. Wicklow, where she spent the remainder of her life, until she died in January 1964. She is buried with her husband in the Republican Plot, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.   
  • On one occasion Winston Churchill described Childers as 'a great patriot and statesman'. On another occasion, Churchill also said of him that "No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth". This was of course Churchill's revenge for Childers being heavily instrumental in Ireland's Independence.
  • Éamon de Valera said of him, "He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest."

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Tags: 1916, Easter Rising, Irish Freedom Struggle

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